Is It Getting Better?
When we began working on this exhibition, we expected to be able to answer this simple question. We assumed that we could determine how much clothing sweatshops produced and how many people they employed. We were wrong. There are no simple answers.
Depending on their source, estimates of the number of garment sweatshops in the United States vary greatly. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that out of 22,000 U.S. garment shops, at least half were in serious violation of wage and safety laws. No one knows for sure.
Some historical trends are evident. For garment workers, it is clear that working conditions were oppressive in the 1910s, had improved by the 1950s, but worsened in the 1980s. For consumers, prices have steadily dropped.
The current interest in sweatshops is encouraging. We hope that through greater public awareness of a complex industry and cooperation among business, labor, government, and consumers, solutions will be found.
Peter Liebhold & Harry Rubenstein
National Museum of American History
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